High up above Earth’s atmosphere, NASA’s Perseverance Rover is cruising to Mars in the first stages of a new mission to uncover secrets hidden within the Red Planet.
On the ground, UNLV doctoral student Alexandrea Washington has launched a research endeavor of her own that could one day help NASA on future missions.
Washington, a graduate research assistant pursuing her Ph.D. in mechanical engineering at UNLV, is one of 17 student scientists from around the country recently selected by NASA for a three-year fellowship to advance future space explorations. The fellowship is part of NASA’s Minority University Research and Education Project, which funds STEM research at minority-serving institutions.
Nearly 280 student researchers applied.
“I was really surprised because I know there are so many amazing students from across the country who apply,” Washington said. “When I first heard, I thought: ‘What, me? That’s crazy!’ It’s an amazing opportunity.”
Washington will begin work on her project this fall, with the goal to develop a robotic mobile platform over the next three years that is able to traverse unique terrains and explore places humans cannot yet reach — either on Earth, or in extraterrestrial spaces.
Her system will be both flexible and robust, combining the flexibility of liquid-based soft actuators with the durability of a rigid chassis and other components, to create a hybrid robotic platform that mimics the movements of a snake.
Washington said a system like this is perfect for ventures such as exploration and inspection.
“Soft robotics can help us make something lifelike,” Washington said. “We can use the robot to take the risk for humans instead, and assist humans with difficult tasks.”
Washington has been exploring how to weave together robotics with human interaction since joining mechanical engineering professor Kwang Kim’s lab on UNLV’s campus. In the pursuit of her Ph.D. and her new fellowship, she’ll continue to research how smart materials can be used to create devices that are silent, lightweight, and flexible.
“Humans and animals are such complex creatures and the fact that we can replicate it to a certain extent is really useful,” she said.
She hopes her research will also increase understanding of how dynamic systems and different materials function in extraplanetary or extraterrestrial environments. Her platform will also be designed to be modular so that it can be easily assembled and disassembled to add or subtract components.
Kim said the project is broad enough that it has the potential for many applications at NASA.
“This is a great opportunity for Alex,” Kim said. “It’s a very competitive program and it speaks volumes about the strength of her proposal that she was selected. Not everyone is able to get this type of opportunity.”